Booyah! Over 10% of the way through The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Unfortunately, I’m still in heavily exegetical territory. Personally I much prefer Richard Elliott Friedman when it comes to textual interpretation of ancient works, but I knew what I was getting into. In any case, in chapter 2 Stephen Jay Gould mentions the Bible and Shakespeare considerably less, though his verbosity keeps on a truckin’. Instead of an exposition of Gould’s own view of evolutionary theory he recapitulates and interprets Charles Darwin’s argument in Origin of Species. Now, I read Origin of Species when I was a wee lad, so honestly I don’t remember it too well. It seems that all you need from it are the general insights; I don’t see the point of pouring over the welter of specific arguments that Darwin marshaled to convince a still partially Creationist intellectual class as to the correctness of evolution as a fact and the primacy of natural selection as the process which drove that fact.1 Gould is correct that many evolutionary thinkers tend to view Darwin as a saint, and that it can be a bit much. That being said, I’m not sure if it really happens that much in a field such as evolutionary genetics, where the genuflection is notional and symbolic. In The Mating Mind evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller does go back to Darwin’s original work in The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex to help shape his argument that sexual selection was a primary driver of the our own species’ development over time (e.g., the gradual increase in brain size between 2 million years BP and 200,000 years BP). But I think this is an exception to the rule, evolutionary biology is of course a science, and venerable works of one age are simply the bricks buried and forgotten deep in the structure of scientific knowledge. Darwin’s looms large because of his cultural significance; to some extent he was a sign of the overthrow of the old religious dispensation. Like Nietzsche or Marx he will remain in the spotlight for centuries because of his historical importance above and beyond what his scientific accomplishments. In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory Stephen Jay Gould in is proposing an alternative path from that of the “orthodox Darwinism” which reaches back to the original founder, and so he must grapple with Darwin as a launching off point. Below, my general impressions….
1) Gould claims that Darwin was focused on the uniformity of the small. This seems to me a way to say that Darwin emphasized the uniform action of microevolutionary processes.
2) Additionally, Darwin was attempting to generate a rigorous historical science with standards analogous to physics. He attacked the problem from multiple dimensions, appealing to uniformitarianism, the sequence of events (I assume this is basically natural history?), consilience (how an assemblage of facts cohere into a larger system) and discordance (an analysis of the exceptions to the rule and how they may still illuminate the general processes).
3) Charles Darwin was a man of his age. The influence from predecessors within his field, such as Charles Lyell, are clear, but so is the stamp of the social Zeitgeist, from Thomas Malthus to the liberal economists who followed in the wake of Adam Smith. Gould makes the claim that the central position of natural selection within Darwin’s model is obviously derived from the precedent of the “invisible hand” of the free market, whether the great man knew it or not.
4) Render unto natural selection nearly all. Though Darwin did grant some role to non-selective evolutionary forces, ultimately selection was the predominant force in shaping the tree of life.
5) Render unto the individual all priority. Darwin was an individual selectionist par excellence. Here Gould suggests that the influence of liberal economists was strong. Instead of species level selection which might be reminiscent of mercantalism Origin of Species shows how competition between individuals results in the scaling of the adaptive peak. Darwin rejected higher order levels of selection, and repeatedly attempted to reinterpret communitarian or social behavior through an individual selectionist frame.
6) Darwin was an ultra-Darwinian. Gould asserts that Darwin was an extreme gradualist who believed that selection placed a gentle and uniform pressure upon phyletic lineages which slowly drifted across enormous geological spans through anagenetic somnolescence.
7) Darwin’s adaptationism was embedded firmly within his selectionist paradigm.
8) Darwin was not a pluralist, he emphasized a high frequency manifestation of his dynamics of choice in a particular form. That is, gradual change was nearly constant, selection was the overwhelming driver of adaptation, phyletic change resulted in a continuity of form over geological time, and so forth.
1 – There were other evolutionary works in the air at the time which laid the groundwork for the revolution which Darwin catalyzed. So that’s why I say partially Creationist.